Has Pride Lost Its Way?

On February 5th, 1981, Toronto Police raided four major gay bathouses in Toronto, leading to over three hundred men being arrested. It is an event often considered the Canadian version of the events at Stonewall in 1969, and indeed the raid was the catalyst for the first Pride March in Toronto. Back then, Toronto Pride was a riot, a protest. It was the year before the AIDS crisis would begin to ravage our community. It was well before legal gay marriage would become a reality. And, of course, it was a far cry off from Pride of today, which feels more like a month-long party, expensive and inaccessible, and catering almost exclusively to white cis gay men.

Which isn’t to say that we should return to where we were as a community in 1981. We have made extraordinarily amazing progress as a community in the years since the first Pride. The problem isn’t really how far we’ve gotten, it’s who we’ve been leaving behind, and what history we are forgetting.

How many people really know the history behind Pride? How many of us know who the major players were? Or, perhaps worse, simply don’t care? And this lack of care is what leads to, for example, the exclusion of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both trans women of color, from the 2015 film Stonewall, even though both were extremely integral to the actual riots, much more so than the fictional cis white gay man who the movie makes out to be the instigator.

Besides, is Pride even for us, as in the LGBTQ community? It’s doubtful. Over the years, Pride has gone from a sense of protest and demanding of inclusion, and has become more corporate, more exclusive, and those who try to remind Pride of its roots in protest are shut down. Isn’t BLM trying to bring Pride to a place of tolerance, where black and brown queer people don’t feel like they are being pushed out of their parade for the “feelings” of some police officers? Besides, nobody’s saying police can’t show up as civilians out of uniform, just as proud as any of us. Instead of pushing themselves into a parade, wouldn’t it be more productive to actually try to build a better relationship with the communities they are meant to help? Police chief Mark Saunders apologizing for the bathhouse raids was a good first step, but much more needs to be done.

Men being arrested in the bathhouse raids of 1981. Image from the Toronto Star

A Pride full of TD floats, ever-flowing booze, and non-stop partying isn’t exactly made for a history lesson. I’m not saying that Pride shouldn’t have parties. The celebratory aspect is wonderful. But it has consumed Pride to the point where wanting anything else makes you feel like you’re not a real part of the community.

Not to mention, when the feelings of corporations are prioritized over actual queer people, then you have a problem. After all, it’s a lot easier to pitch a float than make real change. I reached out to several queer people around Toronto and asked them their thoughts, and many stated their outright discomfort with the level of corporate involvement in Toronto Pride. As, Laura, a bisexual cis woman told me, “I feel like pride has become very commercial, especially with corporations being involved. A bank with a rainbow flag on its door doesn’t really increase acceptance of [LGBTQIAP] individuals, just increases liberals patting themselves on the back for not really doing anything other than saying ‘I don’t hate gay people.’” Similarly, L. G., who identifies themselves as queer, enjoys “Participating in collective resistance” but dislikes the “Corporatization…straight ‘allies’…onlookers occupying space ignorantly…[I] often feel like Pride is for cis white gay men with money”

Chris, a queer trans man, notes that he wants to “try to always be learning about fabulous, badass queers of our past, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know through a history of erasure.” Indeed, queer history has been consistently erased from the past. Even when the record is there, it’s through a lens of disgust for queer people. For instance, Daily Xtra recently ran an article promoting an upcoming Heritage Toronto tour of LGBTQ history. In the article, Jade Pichette the volunteer and community outreach coordinator for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is quoted as noting “It’s expected in some ways that the only places that we would find material about our communities before we started creating them ourselves would be in the places that would be trying to shame us,” The article goes on to say that “Historical records of queer life in Toronto in decades past can be difficult to find; when material was written explicitly by gay men, it was often later destroyed. So tabloid clippings help to paint a picture of life for queer individuals of the era — and later generations.” 

Still, any learning is impossible if the history gets lost in a party, and if Pride only lives inside one month of corporate parades and parties for rich white gay cis men. Progress is rarely made by those who get to feel comfortable in their position, and indeed this is the case for LGBTQIAP history right here in Toronto.

Celebrating queer identity in its many forms is a wonderful thing, but partying can’t be the centre of Pride, or the only thing that it offers. Pride needs to be inclusive for all and a way to connect with our shared past.

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